UMass dumping fossil fuels cheers greens but may prove costly

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BOSTON The University of Massachusetts became the first major public university system in America to completely divest fossil fuel-related investments, a decision that was received with glee by environmental activists on campus.

“WE WON!!!!!”  proudly declared a Facebook post from the driving force behind the movement urging the action, Divest UMass, immediately after the vote that charted the course. The activists crowed that decision “was a direct result of the immense power and support of student and community organizing.”

Directors of the UMass Foundation voted unanimously Wednesday to take the step, according to a statement released by the system. The foundation, a separate not-for-profit organization, oversees an endowment valued at $770 million as of the end of the past fiscal year.

The amount of investment in the sector is tiny, however.

“UMass officials have generally referred to a figure of $5 million for direct fossil fuel investments,” said Ray Howell, an outside spokesman for the foundation. Based on the endowment’s value at the end of the past fiscal year, the value of those holdings represents about 0.65 percent, or 65 one-hundredths of 1 percent, of the endowment.

The university’s press release referred to April’s “series of demonstrations at UMass Amherst to call for divestment from all fossil fuels.”

The demonstrations brought out more than 500 students who staged a multi-day occupation of an administration building, resulting in 34 arrests. The Divest UMass group later asked occupation participants to share their experiences via a blog.

“When I walked out of Whitmore with my hands ziptied behind my back and a police officer escorting me through the doors, love wasn’t exactly what I was feeling in that moment, or at least expecting to feel,” one unnamed student wrote. “I was feeling slightly exhilarated and very purposeful.

“I have to say, hearing everyone standing outside shouting `WE LOVE YOU’ over and over again at me and the other people being arrested kind of exploded some love fireworks in my chest,” the demonstrator said.

Robert L. Bradley Jr., founder and chief executive of the Washington-based Institute for Energy Research, warned however that some of those “love fireworks” might come crashing back to earth in the form of costs shouldered partly by future students.

“These types of schools, maybe they can afford their virtues, but on the investment side and the energy expenditure side, a lot of them are not acting as rational consumers or investors,” Bradley said Thursday in an interview. “So then there’s the opportunity cost let’s say that whatever premium they’re paying for politically or morally correct in their minds, the opportunity cost is the same amount of money being used for student aid.”

“They have to tell me that there’s a better moral case against buying or using fossil fuels than there is helping students at the margin.”

And while the foundation’s fossil fuel holdings may be a drop in the bucket in terms of its overall portfolio, Bradley has asserted that the endowment divestiture movement is driven by zealots and professional political organizers whose goal is make universities become laboratories for “renewable” energy to heat, power and cool campus facilities.

In a recent op-ed, Bradley pointed to a study by the National Association of Scholars, a nonprofit group that bills itself as being committed to fostering intellectual freedom at liberal arts institutions. The research shows that the divestiture movement’s “abiding purpose” is “to pressure governments to favor wind, solar, and hydro power, and to make colleges and universities pressure cookers of sustainability.

“The sustainability movement, in turn, combines envi­ronmental extremism, global warming alarmism, opposition to modern industrial economies and market economics, an affinity for global regulation, and a distaste for representative government,” NAS researchers said in the November 2015 report.

Bradley on Thursday described the process as a “double-whammy” for schools.

“They wind up spending unnecessary costs to use politically correct energies,” Bradley said. “Solar panels are what we’re talking about, it’s not like they’re going to put up a wind turbine.”

“So yes, that and they could overly conserve, where they tear out existing equipment and put in new equipment that uses less energy, although it may be very expensive to do so.”

The university “has been reducing reliance on fossil fuels via various efficiency projects for a decade or more,” Robert Connolly, a spokesman for the five-campus system, said Thursday.

UMass President Marty Meehan lauded the students behind the movement in a prepared statement.

“This action is consistent with the principles that have guided our university since its Land Grant inception and reflects our commitment to take on the environmental challenges that confront us all,” Meehan said. “Important societal change often begins on college campuses and it often begins with students.”

“I’m proud of the students and the entire university community for putting UMass at the forefront of a vital movement, one that has been important to me throughout my professional life,” Meehan said.